Sponsorships provide a significant source of funds that help you host conferences, events, education, and other activities that boost the value of membership. As you work to line up sponsors for next year, savvy companies will ask for more value, more exposure, and more return on investment from their sponsorships.
Your sponsors want expanded ways to engage with members, and although it is important to facilitate opportunities for sponsors to connect, it is equally important to understand the rules of corporate sponsorship if your REALTOR® association is a tax-exempt organization, 501(c)(6). Pack your sponsorship package with too many perks, access, or endorsements, and you could receive a larger-than-expected tax bill if the IRS says sponsor dollars are actually advertising income.
Here’s how to avoid this tax liability
First, as you may already know, the Internal Revenue Code permits associations to be tax-exempt and avoid federal income tax on most of their income. Notwithstanding that exempt status, the IRS does impose tax on your income-producing activities when they are of a kind ordinarily carried out by for-profit companies and are not closely related to the exempt purposes of your association. Such activities could include activities such as renting out the association’s conference room as a movie theater. The tax on such income is called “unrelated business income tax,” or “UBIT.”
For example, not-for-profit REALTOR® associations typically do pay income tax on the revenue generated from their advertisement sales in their magazines and newsletters.
Qualified Sponsorship Payments
Now back to sponsorships. There’s an exemption to the UBIT rule for qualified sponsorship payments. This means a sponsorship payment will not be considered taxable income if the corporate sponsor is only acknowledged or given recognition—so it’s unlike buying an advertisement in your association magazine.
Not-for-profit associations cannot give sponsors other benefits in return for sponsorship if they want to keep the sponsorship income tax-exempt.
The rules for qualified sponsorship payments say an acknowledgment cannot recommend, endorse, or promote a sponsor’s business, product, or service. Yet an association’s acknowledgment of a corporate sponsor can include:
- Printed thanks in an onsite conference program;
- Verbal thanks from staff or leaders during an association meeting or event;
- Recognition of the corporate sponsor on your website that includes the sponsor’s name, logo, and slogans that do not contain qualitative or comparative descriptions of the sponsor’s products, services, or company;
- Value-neutral descriptions, including displays or visual depictions, of the corporate sponsor’s product line or services; and
- Exclusive sponsorship arrangements (as opposed to exclusive provider arrangements).